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As Congress balks on funds for security, rhetoric flares

“There is a bipartisan desire to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and I'm sure we’ll resolve this sometime in the next few weeks,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/File

WASHINGTON — Spending for the Department of Homeland Security hangs in the balance as Congress fights over immigration matters in the agency’s annual funding bill. Without action by Feb. 27, the department’s budget will shut off.

The congressional stalemate on funding the department deepened Thursday as Senate Democrats blocked action on the bill to protest Republican language on immigration.

The legislation, passed last month by the House, funds the agency through the remainder of the budget year while reversing President Obama’s administrative order protecting millions of immigrants living in this country illegally from deportation.

Senate Democrats say they won’t agree to the bill unless all the immigration language is removed.

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To hear Democrats and many Republicans tell it, any shutdown would threaten US security at a time of grave threats worldwide. Others say most people will see little immediate change if the department’s money flow is halted, and they call the warnings exaggerated.

“There are ghoulish, grim predators out there who would love to kill us or do us harm,” said Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We should not be dillydallying and playing parliamentary ping pong with national security.”

In the view of some House conservatives, though, shutting off the agency’s $40 billion budget for a time “is obviously not the end of the world,” as Representative Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, put it — because many agency employees would stay at work through a shutdown.

A department shutdown would have a limited effect on national security, at least for the short term, they say. That’s because most department employees fall into exempted categories of workers who stay on the job in a shutdown because they perform work considered necessary to protect human life and property.

In addition, most workers in other agencies involved in domestic security, including the Secret Service, Transportation Security Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Customs and Border Protection, would continue to report to work.

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Airport security checkpoints would remain staffed, the Secret Service would continue to protect the president and other dignitaries, the Coast Guard would stay on patrol, immigration agents would still be on the job.

Of the agency’s approximately 230,000 employees, some 200,000 of them are required to keep working even if Congress fails to fund their agency. It’s a reality that was on display during the 16-day governmentwide shutdown in the fall of 2013, when national parks and monuments closed but essential government functions kept running, although sometimes on reduced staff.

That has not stopped the sometimes overheated rhetoric, often from Democrats trying to prove a political point.

“If this goes to shutdown,” Mikulski said, “this could close down ports up and down the East Coast because if you don’t have a Coast Guard, you don’t have the ports. You don’t have the ports, you don’t have an economy.”

But Republicans said that if the department loses its money, the Coast Guard will stay in operation and so will the ports.

There would be one big change, though. Most workers would not get paid until the shutdown ends, a circumstance that is guaranteed to put pressure on members of Congress hearing from constituents angry about going without their paychecks.

Making employees come to work without pay is “a real challenge” for them, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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Republican leaders in both chambers insist they will not allow the Homeland Security agency to go without funding at a time of global terror threats. But if they have a solution, they haven’t said what it is. The likeliest outcome might be a short-term funding extension.

“There is a bipartisan desire to fund the Department of Homeland Security, and I'm sure we’ll resolve this sometime in the next few weeks,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

“God bless him and good luck,” House Speaker John Boehner later said of McConnell. “What else can you say?”

Workers at Homeland Security agencies funded by fees, instead of by congressional appropriations, would continue their functions while still drawing a paycheck. Such a situation applies to the very employees charged with putting in place the immigration programs at the heart of the political dispute.

Fees pay the salaries of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services workers, who would process applications from immigrants eligible to work lawfully in the country under Obama’s immigration policies.

Even though Republicans are so determined to shut down Obama’s program that some are willing to risk Homeland Security money to do it, it would stay up and running with little change in the event of a shutdown.

Those who would stop working in a shutdown are mostly administrative staff, including support workers at headquarters, personnel at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, employees involved in research and development, and those responsible for operating and maintaining the E-Verify system, which allows businesses to check the immigration status of new workers.

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In addition, all personnel involved in administering grants would be furloughed, including Federal Emergency Management Agency workers.